Rare Review

Star Trek Discovery Series 1: Our review of Trek’s new Wagon Train to the Stars

Star Trek Discovery Series 1

Jokerside doesn’t often do reviews, but when it does, it’s for something big. When Star Trek returned to its natural small screen home for the first time in 12 years we were there to chart every episode of Discovery‘s first year. You can catch the in-depth reviews over at Jokershorts, but here’s the full season summary and for those rushing to Black Alert!

STAR TREK DISCOVERY SLUNK ONTO SCREENS IN SEPTEMBER 2017, BEHIND A PAYWALL IN THE US, SEVERAL MONTHS BEHIND ITS ORIGINAL SCHEDULE, IN THE WAKE OF RUMOUR AND TROUBLED PRODUCTION. MANY THOUGHT SOMEONE HAD JUMPED INTO A FIREFIGHT WITHOUT CHARGING THEIR PHASER. The full trailer had failed to convince naysayers, who hung onto canon as it crystallised in their grasp as much as it had galvanised those desperate for Trek‘s return.

It was over a year since the last of the current iteration of Star Trek films had been released. Star Trek  Beyond was a brilliant and entertaining film, one of the best reviewed of the season, but had sunk heavily at the box office, bafflingly released months before the franchise’s 50th anniversary.

That Discovery was produced as the flagship show for the streaming network of another company, CBS, said a lot about the fraught rights issues around Star Trek. That CBS hadn’t been the kindest about Star Trek‘s prospects in the years leading up to it said everything else. Bu there were more dramatic and pressing worries. The show’s production was delayed nominally because of the great inticacy of its design (plastic printed Klingon garbs), just one factor that left it vulnerable to being usurped. Seth macfarlane’s Orville duly warped in over on Fox, heavily ‘homaging’ the fan-favourite Star Trek: The Next Generation era in a mix of broad comedy and moral drama that won fair critical approval and audience. The challenge of serving up fresh Trek (having already amassed 725 television hours), set between The Original Series and Enterprise suddenly looked even steeper.

On the way, Discovery had also apparently lost one of its key assets. ’90s Trek veteran, televisual visionary and exactly who everyone wanted to run the new Star Trek show Bryan Fuller… Quit. Fired, pushed, a bit of both, it was a big blow.

Outside America, the rest of us loaded up Discovery on Netflix that autumn not knowing what to expect. But wouldn’t you know, all the above proved a fertile ground for a bold new era of Star Trek. Somehow the combination of concept, a lot carried from Fuller, and logistical need (“alright, let’s veer course and pad things out with the Mirror universe! or something”) set 15 episodes of first rate television, be it genre, science-fiction or plain of Star Trek.

Here’s our summary review of each episode, with our Series average at the end. Oh, and because this was tasty, and twisty throughout, you’ll see our theory-ometer for each episode too – a good indication of where our head’s were at! yIbaH!

1.1 & 1.2: Battle of the Binary Stars

“Discovery strives to set out both sides. And it wins the battle.
The ending’s even more rushed than the disintegration of unity on the USS Shenzhou bridge. But though we don’t see the consequences of big bad T’Kuvma’s mistake, hung on his devotion, the pinch that Burnham has inadvertently created a martyr of this Kahless reborn persists. We lose two compelling characters come the end, in a mess of a fall-out that submerges both sides in shadow and darkness. That’s how strong Discovery is, and the solid set of concepts that can drive missions into its web. We have a strong set of characters, fascinating dynamics and just enough sturdiness about the characters left behind to propel the series on, even if we have little idea how they’ll fit together in the series proper.

It’s bold, and its divisive. But Discovery’s talent prioritised the concept of the show as they saw it, acutely aware that it could never meet every expectations right out of space dock. Creating that potential on the back of so much continuity and such a long break is no mean feat.

CBS, have got a winner, one of the strongest Trek pilots in 51 years, and we haven’t even started the series properly yet. On the strength of this many more people will realise that come the series end.”

Rating: B+

[We also provided a Klingon review of these episodes, as it seemeed only right. the core there? rap je wovbe’!

Where was our theory-ometer? “Prime? this is the Kelvin timeline through and through…”

1.3: Context is for Kings

“Science versus war. It’s Star Trek through and through.
Not perfect as it sticks to twisting the simple, Context is for Kings nevertheless exceeds expectations. Forming the second of Discovery’s two pilots, this is the closest the franchise has ever come to having its cake and eating it. And it remains/tastes good.

In the beautiful ship’s wake, Star Trek fans are splintering into groups that refuse to give a quarter. At the front, Discovery can’t win. Its nods to the past are taken as reduxes or vain grabs at previous glory; its attempts to promote mystery are cynical and wholly un-Trek.

Except of course, it is winning.

Packing just over 40 minutes with this level of humour, these ideas, characters, that sense of wonder and everything else on top is not just what the franchise was, but everything Star Trek’s ever wanted to be. The hard job of turning the lens back on the bloated franchise ably continues, and everyone should be along for the ride.

Whisper its name in a dark room with a Tribble’s purr. Discovery is top-class Star Trekking.”

Rating: B

Where was our theory-ometer? “Okay, it’s Prime. But it’s Section 31. In the Mirror Universe. Don’t think about that too hard.”

1.4: The Butcher’s Knife Cares not for the Lamb’s Cry

“Hardly a terrible rank, but his fourth episode is a sign of the series proper and that comes with pros and cons. Discovery’s adopted it’s own plot simplicity, shrouding mystery with heavy nods to science-fiction staples and particular leads from the first year of the Orginal Series (as well as fine nods to contemporary science with the Tardigrade).

But on the way it makes a number of questionable concessions: the crew members dispensed too quickly, the unlikely science bonding, the captain who doesn’t appear quite as menacing as he should, the fast-tracked road to redemption for our hounded protagonist. The script sizzles though, individual scenes sparkle, and those references to the Original Series are compelling. As run of the mill episodes go, falling under the wheels of the first tech arc, it does succeed in breathing a new dynamic into the standard ‘rush to rescue’ plot that the franchise has flogged for years.

Despite the first sign of that rushed strain, leaving it unclear if the internalisation of the show’s heavy issues will work, it’s the real strengths of Star Trek that save this tortuously titled episode. Character work and the fantastically loopy depiction of space travel. Keep steering by those stars.”

Rating: C+

Where was our theory-ometer? Waiddaminute…”Captain Lorca is from the Mirror universe?”

1.5: Choose Your Pain

“There are some wonderful moments that prove the pace and cleverness of Discovery. There’s are the continuous hints, not to be distracted by the swearing, that it’s not going to be compromised in its pursuit of the optimism and horror of humanity’s exploration of space. Discovery clearly has the power to be a powerful show, and it can’t let that confidence slip. Resolving plot strands while opening new ones, it’s engrossing, tricky and able to chip open previously unexplored parts of a franchise that some feared had run out of steam long ago. But the trick is that it’s determined to show us the prolonged consequences of uncertain times, and aside from some pacing misfires, unveils the new crew at its own and unpredictable pace. That’s a wholly new Star Trek phenomenon.”

Rating: B

Where was our theory-ometer? “Shazad Latif’s Ash Tyler is a Klingon duplicate.” Got to be.

1.6: Lethe

“Rules are for admirals and back officers”

“A tale of two sides. Kol’s quest for a united Klingon empire, bribing a growing faithful with the power to cloak ships. Then Lorca’s increasingly dark mission to win at any cost. And somehow in the middle it packs in style, horror, and humour, with more layering than a targ could shake its tail at. A ‘B’ rating seems mean for a show that’s maintaining a consistently high level — not seen in the franchise for 50 years. And that’s not bad when you know an ambassador will definitely survive, and an admiral’s damned as soon as she sets foot on the ship.

While it’s pacey this is all a bit run of the mill by Discovery’s standards. The confidence still dazzles as it’s happy to serve up unbelievable sights. Strands are left as it coils a palpable noose ever more tightly around the looming looking glass. Can the promise of the Mirror universe really be a crucial crux at the heart of this series? Can it sustain the jump from mystery to answers? If the trade-off is such a watchable episode that’s so dedicated to simply getting chess pieces to their next position I can take it.

There’s a delight in the little details, like Lorca’s quick zip up as he heads for a rollicking, Burnham’s still impressive eyebrow work before a broad grin at the end, the wildly irritating health advice from the replicator, and a background score that’s working its own thematic magic. To think we haven’t even reached a temporal anomaly yet…. News that a second series has been confirmed broke just before this episode was released and it’s welcome. Discovery just makes me want to watch more Star Trek.”

Rating: B

Where was our theory-ometer? “Is Lorca’s game longer than anyone ever imagined? If the lieutenant most likely to own a tattoo stating, “I am a Klingon” does have something to hide, his captain may be two steps ahead.”

1.7: Magic to Make the Sanest Man go Mad

“Okay, show’s over bud”

“If it wasn’t worth protecting his entrance and opening slaughter, they could have called this episode Captain Mudd. Of course Mudd, his chrono-shenanigans, the endless (lack of) consequences, aren’t really the point as entertaining as they are in a long lineage of time loop stories. This is Discovery holding a mirror up to love, and reality of relationships in space, and specifically this intense ship. From Lorca and his ship(s), and the sacrifices he makes continually. To Stamets and the inexplicable web of DNA in space-time. Then of course, there’s our fast-emerging central couple. Come the end, everyone has a relationship manipulated. Purposefully, this episode ends on a double-hand. The striking, unpredictable if logical and strikingly framed sacrifice of Burnham to force one further time reboot – playing on greed in a way we should all call the “Mudd hello”. But then the simple resolution is based on the old reverse gun trick, as Tyler rewires the captain’s chair — a bizarrely non-essential system. It mixes it up, but Discovery retains a very simple core. It’s the perception and application that’s resonating.

When we’re told there are 823 ways to die in space, it’s clear it’s not going to end well for everyone.”

Rating: B

Where was our theory-ometer? Getting Theoretical: What are the latest theories?
“Not much for small talk are you?”
Lorca, he dead. Think about it. He’s dead right? The whole eye injury isn’t . The Buron incident is increasingly public record, but the the injury — still ambiguous – and his evident psychosis is a misdirection. How did he escape that ship, what dark secrets lie in his survival? Stamets’ journey is hardly pointing at a typical Mirror universe resolution, and there’s definitely more to meet the eye, or the conventional humanity, of the Discovery’s captain.

1.8: Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum

“The needs of the many.. Yes, even a mildy new spin on that concept makes it in… Oh the intention is there, but it’s the lore that clogs the whole thing up while wasting some fantastic tributes. There was much anticipation for the show’s first full away mission, but it shows the claustrophobia that Discovery relies on. The weight of both major plots, from Saru’s epiphany to L’Rell’s deceit are utterly irrelevant in the scheme of things.

With its tint of brushed away gobbledegook, this is the kind of covert mission in the midst of war that Deep Space Nine excelled at, but Discovery lacks that roominess as all sights are set on that mid-series finale. A huge strength, an occasional weakness.

Aside from anything else, it’s an odd, far too contrary, return to the character spotlight-of-the-week approach — and compared to the shows pivot point, Burnham’s initial mutiny — the Eve moment — that’s not really the way to get behind Saru’s threat ganglia. It says a lot that episode eight most resembles the first episode of the series and marks how far the series has come.

All that being said, the shot of Saru running through the forests — that’s ace.”

Rating: C –

Where was our theory-ometer? We’re just “dwelling on Captain Gabriel Lorca.” IS he the most fascinating captain in the show’s history?

1.9: Into the Forest I Go

“The war is not won yet, but you have increased the chance of a victory for Starfleet despite your unorthodox methods”

“So much more that the debut of Klingon breasts…

Unorthodox it may be, but Discovery proves that once again that it can have its cake and eat it. The franchise’s first mid-series finale may answer the easy, dramatic questions instead of the long-running rumours.

Perhaps it’s biggest trick is how, while consistently living up to its promise to tell the story of the lower ranks, running it through the cadets, lieutenants, science and consequences, it’s produced one of the great captains.

The Klingon Ship of the Dead may have reached a premature end — but hey, with all those corpses in the morgue (huh?) Kol was running it all wrong anyway . What’s significant is how understated that end is. And Lorca, after adding drops for the explosion, is just too cool to see it to the very end. He’s got those peepers on a whole new set of plot strands…

“Let’s go home”

“Captain, I’m afraid I don’t know where we are”

Rating: A –

Where was our theory-ometer? “Holy Moley, we took the eye off the ball. Remember we were watching this through Lorca’s eyes? Well, eyes that can’t see a victorious explosion?” We’re surely heading to the Mirror universe. But “why would he want to go there, eh? Oh, and Ash’s Voq. Right? It’s that simple…”

1.10: Despite Yourself

“It’s not just the captain who’s in his element here, all the way to his primed Agoniser Booth. This is Discovery at warp 9 confidence, relishing the next stage of its well-planned game. How else could the show assemble a string of expository sequences and nail a ridiculous hare-brained scheme to the end with such aplomb? Jonathan Frakes’ direction is brilliant, but not enough on its own.

A boost comes from the streamlined, tender approach as the ship slips into siege mode. The impossible drive at its heart is cut off in an impossible universe. As a whole, the show is certainly more cohesive when it can dwell on the ship alone, after weeks of multi-species storylines. Discovery’s main fault may be running too fast to meet its myriad oncoming ideas.

It’s sometimes hard to believe this is a strong, reverential part of a franchise that for so long stagnated under its impressive longevity.

And when Discovery’s that confident, it’s no wonder the writers room has its own Twitter account! Trips to the mirror universe require a huge suspension of disbelief — but there are few areas of Trek’s quadrants that are as fun to be carried away to. Hopes are huge, the Mirror Universe looks like it was worth the long wait.

Rating: B+

Where was our theory-ometer? “A faceless Emperor? Our money’s on the beloved and fair Philippa Georgiou making things tick. Things are going to get tasty.”

1.11: The Wolf Inside

“We are stranded in a cruel, anarchic world but we are still Starfleet”

If Discovery serves up anything better than this in the rest of the series, I’ll surgically expand myself into a Klingon. Brilliantly written, structured, acted, plotted… But that promise has been there all the way through. What’s truly refreshing about this show is that it can take a major plot twist, one it’s played fast and loose with for some time, and use it as a punchline to solve another plot entirely. Discovery seems ready for anything, and despite the accelerating timescale of the show, none of the crew members seem as if they’re running out of steam. It gets this rating with minimal Lorca, and somehow from the depths of everything pulls out some of the greatest, optimistic, lines of Trek the show’s ever heard. Discovery has truly made its mark.

Rating: A+ (This was the episode of the season)

Where was our theory-ometer? “Honestly, I’m too tired after this! Let’s just bask in the longest stint in the Mirror Universe in Trek history… or future…”

1.12: Vaulting Ambition

“I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other”

“Straight from Macbeth, Act I. Where else? And these tragedies rather rely on their actors and interpretation.

Discovery just wouldn’t work without it’s cast, and this is a masterclass at juggling them. Oh, there are flaws: The ease with which characters are lost in this series (Hugh has to be buried with his toothbrush, right?). The technobabble Burnham has to spout (the what drive now?). And then the fact that really no one is as they appear (No wonder McCoy ended up as he did given the fallibility of the instruments). Gabriel Lorca was absolutely fascinating, and after all that, he was just a great big commanding red herring. It’s a great twist, but leaves a helluva hole.

Discovery though, is all about dealing with those holes. On the journey, the design, the cast, the script are wonderful — but it’s in the long game, patience and dedication to a twist that gels it together. Even the more obvious twists get the heart pumping, because they unlock a flood of half memories. Lines and actions that hid in the fabric of the show, but always pointed to something further down the wormhole. This is an average episode in structure, made huge in Discovery’s grand plan. And there it is, hidden in the title. In plain sight. Vaulting indeed.”

Rating: B

Where was our theory-ometer? “Tyler’s Voq, then Tyler again. Lorca’s Lorca, but their Lorca. We’re well beyond theory at this point.”

1.13: What’s Past is Prologue

“Just thinking about everyone who’s ever said victory felt empty when it was obtained. What a bunch of idiots they were”

That’s a lovely line and sequence in the ISS Charon throne room. For Lorca’s delivery and also for Landry’s genuine laugh. Mostly though, it best represents the show’s blatant disregard for giving a damn.

Beautifully directed, charged with high energy not from a Mycelial network, but the inherent courage to serve up entertainment and undercut conventions that Discovery’s built throughout its run. Is there a box not ticked here, from twisted love story to fatal satire? Klingons of course, but that’s where it’s simple, pelting strength lies. To think that all the series we were concerned the on-screen Lorca wasn’t living up to his reputation. Of course, that dissonance was just another important part of the trick. For a show that’s purposefully worked away from character episodes, Discovery has made an art of advancing character arcs. Challenging at the human and multiversal level, and using each to examine the other.

Clearly, an awful lot of water has run under the bridge since the Binary Stars. As a conclusion to Lorca’s journey, What’s Past is Prologue it’s satisfying — we had to see him die painfully — and as a season finale it’s brilliant.

They really don’t accept a no win scenario. What in the galaxy can this show throw up for its remaining episodes?”

Rating: A

Where was our theory-ometer? “All we can say is that Lorca being their Lorca, after Tyler turned out to be their Voq seems all too obvious now. The ride was in the discovery of it all, not surprisingly. It’s a rude arrival back in the real universe, where the focus falls on the incredibly straightforward Klingon war. A war they are apparently winning. While we catch our breath, what’s the betting the Klingon members of the ship’s company will help sew some division into a united Empire?”

1.14:  The War Without, the War Within

“Starfleet is confident that Captain Georgiou is uniquely qualified to get you there and to do what needs to be done”

“Exquisitely blending personal and universal approaches to the myriad terrors and problems it throws up, the approach may end up being as simple as the episode that came before, but the application is entirely different. In some ways, The War Within, The War Without is one of the easier episodes to compare to Trek shows of old. But it’s in the tangible substance, even as it fleets and styles through it, that Discovery continues to show its strength. The cast is utterly superb throughout, so it seems right to send particular plaudits in Michelle Yeoh’s direction. And yet, for all the character work, this is also the rough and ready A-Team Trek of Discovery at its best. They are back in the right quadrant and ready to roll. The outlandish plan presented as a last chance may be haphazard, but if you can’t see the potential for optimism and wonder packed into it, there’s no hope for you. The beautiful character piece makes up for the sheer Starship Troopers insanity of the plan that propels us to the final.

Hell, any episode that nods to Enterprise and the NX-01 twice is worth taking note of.”

Rating: B+

Where was our theory-ometer? “It’s tricky in the endgame, especially in an episode that runs its twist from start to finish. We’re frequently interested in the mention of souls, however. Here it’s Cornwell’s horror at the loss of 80,000 souls on that base“. It’s a sensible term, Federation members aren’t humans after all. But it brings the adoption of a spirituality, in the face of sectarianism. The show’s ripped up the mystery rulebook for the time being, so that’s all we’ve got.”

1.15: Will you Take my Hand?

“Go to Hell very small human”

That is a superb insult, but in spite of it, Discovery would have struggled to end on the same high it’s enjoyed for the majority of its run. A dip compared to recent scores is down to the show not quite matching the absolute peaks of its previous 15 weeks. Its confidence with layering and echoes set an impossible stall for a satisfactory conclusion, and it’s a shame there’s a dip in the narrative of the hour itself.. The main plot splinters but is sewn up in half an hour as this first season boils down to a combination of The Matrix trilogy, A New Hope and The French Connection.

Clint Howard’s cameo, alongside kinky Orion brethren, suns up its struggle with canon as much as precocious confidence, but you can’t doubt that Discovery is its own show. Despite that sucker-punch of a final scene. Nobody saw that coming. Not even Section 31…

Rating: B

Where was our theory-ometer? Really?

Series rating…

Average Series rating : B

Oh that’s harsh, but brought down by the series real downer, Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum, and the impossible test the finale scuffed.  Not really representative, Discovery should be remembered for the peak of it’s first act and the impeccable high of The Wolf Inside. Really, top class Star Trek. And that doesn’t come around too often. Qapla’

Dig into Jokerside’s full and in-depth Discovery Series 1 reviews here.

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